Academia and Paralysis

In my article on using the division of labor to get the church fathers translated, I provided a provisional plan: (1) scan in Migne’s Latin fathers; (2) post these pages on a website; (3) identify sections for Latin students in Christian high schools; (4) let students get credit for translating these sections; (5) post these translations with the students’ names on them.

The plan puts together some pieces in the academic puzzle: (1) a somewhat rare collection of books in the public domain; (2) cheap new scanning technologies; (3) a growing number of Christian high school and home school students who read Latin; (4) the Web’s free delivery system.

The e-mail response to my article was favorable. There were no critics. There were more e-mails than usual.

There were corrections and suggestions. The more academic the suggestions, the more unrealistic they were. They all partook of some version of “it will never happen.” One of them added a pinch of “it’s not good enough.”

When I first presented my plan to a headmaster in a very advanced Christian day school, I mentioned that the translations might not be very good. Still, I said, critics can provide corrections. The published translations can be improved. His response: “If you don’t write it, you can’t fix it.” I agreed wholeheartedly. Then he told me I had said this years ago. I had forgotten. Unlike Chateaubriand, I don’t keep scraps of paper in my pocket to jot down my one-shot aphorisms.

One phrase, which is not mine, I rely on constantly: “You can’t beat something with nothing.” This concept is almost impossible to get across to university professors.


Let me review my original points. First, there are 382 fat volumes of the church fathers. Only 10% to 20% has been translated into English. The church fathers remain a closed book. Second, students are available to do the translating. Third, doing this work is not busy work. It represents an addition to historical scholarship. Fourth, if the division of labor is not used, this material will not be translated.

Now, I will admit, if really accurate computerized translation comes, then this material will be translated someday. But when? It is better to make use of today’s technology and students than to assume that the daunting technological problems of machine translation will be solved soon.

I received a letter from a man with training in medieval history. I, too, have some background in this field. One of my three areas of concentration for my M.A. was in medieval history. My teacher was Jeffrey Russell. So, I was familiar with the following points.

J.P. Migne’s Patrologia Latina is already available online, and has been for a few years. However, one needs a subscription in order to view it.

Indeed. A friend of mine is a librarian at a small Christian college. His library is being asked to pay $2,500 a year to access the set. When it first came out on four CD-ROMs a decade ago, the company charged $50,000. That figure was drilled into my mind. I thought then, and still do, that only well-heeled universities would be so nave as to pay that much money for a set of Migne.

Or, if one is a student at a university which pays the subscription, he can have access to it as much as he wants. As such, there is no need to scan each and every volume of the PL.

The point of my strategy is to make the set available for free to all comers, all over the world — first in Latin, then in English. To do this, one must use public domain documents. The set on CD-ROM is proprietary, which is why librarians with more money than sense once paid $50,000 for it.

Additionally, I would add that Migne’s transcriptions are, in many cases, unreliable; his work is riddled with errors of transcription. Too many times I have looked at the PL, then gone to a more recent Latin edition of the manuscript in question, only to find that Migne has entire passages (sometimes almost one column in length) that are not found in the ms from which he (ostensibly) transcribed.

This is common knowledge. Let me return to my aphorism: “If you don’t publish it, you can’t fix it.”

By the way, “many” is an academic weasel word. It means “more than one, and favors my argument.”

I am a trained medievalist, and I do a fair amount of work with manuscripts. I also consult the Church Fathers rather frequently. Those of us who do so often talk about how unreliable Migne is. Please don’t misunderstand me, Migne is a great help and we would be in a far worse position without him, but one has to tread very carefully when working with Migne. Thus, I would offer that Migne is in need of re-editing, and that is no small project.

Let me make a startling point: one does not re-edit an edition that one does not have access to.

Another source for writings of the Church Fathers through the Scholastics that is simply excellent is a French series called Sources Chretiennes, and it is highly reliable (both Latin and Greek, I might add). It is an ongoing series.

My goal is to open up closed Christian books. My goal is also to give Christian students a mastery of Latin by doing translation work that no one has ever done before.

My letter-writer ended: “I hope that this information is helpful.”

It is surely helpful. Let me list the ways.


The academic mind, like the academic guild, is closed. It is trained from high school on to focus on what is irrelevant and therefore safe. The process is, as they say, majoring in minors.

I recall the day I took my young wife to a lecture at a Protestant seminary. The lecture was being given by a not-quite Ph.D. who was candidating for a teaching position. I told me wife the following before the lecture began:

This will be the most boring lecture you have ever heard. You will not have heard of the facts he mentions. The speaker will draw no conclusions of any importance.

After the lecture, she said, “How did you know? I almost fell asleep.” Here was my answer (approximately):

The guy was candidating for a job. He did not want to make a mistake. He therefore summarized his Ph.D. dissertation, as I knew he would. The topic is sufficiently narrow so that nobody on the faculty could spot a major error. Also, nobody is ever not hired because his lectures are boring. Lots of people are not hired because their lectures are lively, which might embarrass the other faculty members.

The man was hired. He has been president of the seminary for years. He is a very good lecturer. He speaks at denominational family camps, where teenagers attend. They apparently enjoy him. His insufferable boredom that candidating day was a product of the academic system, not his abilities.

The academic is a trained bureaucrat. He has survived a long system of specialized training in the rules of bureaucracy. Everything is tied to tests, term papers, and formal requirements. Academics and priests were the original trained bureaucrats. This is because they were literate. Kings made use of priests to do administrative duties.

Academics have less power than bureaucrats. They have fewer official responsibilities. Tenure converts fearful people into bored people. Nothing threatens an academic more than a requirement to perform. If he must face a free market, he is terrified.

The scene in Ghostbusters, where the three parapsychologists are fired by the university, is among my all-time favorites. Dan Ackroyd’s character warns the other two:

I liked the University. They gave us money, they gave us the facilities, and we didn’t have to produce anything! I’ve worked in the private sector. They expect results. You’ve never been out of college. You don’t know what it’s like out there.

The rule of survival in every bureaucracy is “Safety first.” Corollaries are: “Don’t make a mistake.” “Keep your head down.” “Do it by the book.” “Don’t make waves.” But the central, unbreakable rule of a master bureaucrat is this one:

Always say no initially. It’s a matter of leaving room to retreat. You can retreat from no to yes, and the person asking you to do something is happy. If you have to retreat from yes to no, you’ve made an enemy.

I remember that one clearly. It was the answer given to a reporter by the Washington bureaucrat with the longest tenure in 1976, upon her retirement. He had asked her how she had survived for so long.

The free market’s law is to say yes initially. The salesman wants the commission. To the question, “Can I get it in blue?” the salesman answers: “Will you sign the contract if I can get it for you in blue?” After the contract is signed, the salesman puts the pressure on the company to deliver it in blue.


The rule of academic survival is “safety first.” So, when I suggested that Migne be put online, the academic reaction was obvious: Migne is not good enough.

Migne, a French publisher, was no scholar. He published the set in the late nineteenth century, when there was no field called medieval history. There were only Catholic clerics and self-funded laymen, who were either dilettantes or eccentrics. Only amateurs engaged in medieval studies. Yet there were enough amateurs that Migne decided to publish 382 volumes of documents.

The academics have now gone to work on the minutia. There is no set of comparable comprehensiveness. The munchkins burrow into the archives to produce highly refined documents, one by one, over years.

Meanwhile, a new generation of students in home schools and under-funded Christian day schools spend their days reading the traditional Latin texts that bored centuries of students before them. It is all busy work; translations of these books are everywhere.

The reaction of my academic clarifier is so typical as to be near-universal. Perfection is unattainable, and should be attempted only by certified scholars.

I ask: Who is paying the salaries of the professors? Mainly the state. If the state ever pulled the plug on all funding of higher education, we would see the end of 90% of what passes for scholarship, and not a moment too soon.


A decade ago, the neoconservative classicist Victor D. Hansen co-authored a book, Who Killed Homer? I have read it twice. It is a great little book. He shows how few students earn degrees in the classics today: under 600 a year. The entire field is dying. Who killed it? His conclusion: the professors themselves — the feminists, the quibblers, the purveyors of arcane specialized linguistic studies.

That sounds good, but he neglects to mention that the quibblers and the purveyors of arcane linguistic studies dominated classics departments early. They set the pattern, not just for today’s classicists but for all academia. They were paid to study the past and make judgments about the past — judgments that could be verified only by other scholars. Then they decided to narrow the field: to study the grammar and vocabulary of dead languages, which was really safe. Nobody spoke these languages. Who could say what the facts were? Only other specialists.

What we need is an amateur army of skilled analysts in every field from outside academia — people who have the basic skills of the scholar, but not the mindset. They need to know how to understand and interpret the past in terms of the present, in preparation for the future. This, the academic mind is trained not to do. The exceptions — the feminists, the Marxists, and the deconstructionists — are at war with the society that funds them, especially the taxpayers, who are deeply resented for not forking over even more of their income to fund their own destruction.

Education must be decentralized. It must be taken off tax-funded life support.

The Web is a tool that we can use to break the academic mandarins’ monopoly over education. Better Migne online for free than scholarly journals online for university libraries only. Better the church fathers online in English than on shelves in Latin.

July 4, 2005

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit He is also the author of a free multi-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

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